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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 2: More ground school

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As I've mentioned before, I teach the private pilot ground school at Lorain County Community College. Naturally, a chunk of that class is devoted to introducing the parts of an airplane and its systems and how they work together to create the miracle of flight. Everything from the tip to tail is covered over the first three weeks of class.

Three weeks may sound like a lot of time, but keep in mind that this is a class that meets twice a week for just over an hour and a half each session. That means that three weeks of college classes is about 10 hours of contact time. Airline ground school is a 9-5 job, so we cover that much material in about a day, and there's a full week or more of it.

For further comparison, the systems manual alone (which is an entirely different book from the Blue Book of last week's classes) for the Dash-8 is bigger than the entire private pilot textbook my college class uses. The number of slides on just the hydraulic system alone is almost as big as all of the introductory material on airplane systems.

When studying the electrical electrical schematic in the Cessna/Piper/etc. POH you're familiar with, unless you're an engineer you probably looked at it and said, "I'm glad I don't have to have that memorized." When doing the oral part of your private pilot checkride, the questions on the electrical system likely boiled down to "Yep, it has one," with some details like it being a 24-volt system with a 60-amp alternator and a few more basics like what will happen if your one alternator goes offline. You won't be so lucky this time, because not only will you need to have that schematic memorized, you'll have multiple alternators, both DC and AC now, with TRUs thrown in just to make the manufacturer's double-Es feel like they did something to earn that salary. You'll need to know how many of which kind of thing can fail before the system starts load shedding (which small airplanes don't do—their electrical stuff just dies) and what systems get tossed when that shedding starts. And so on. For example, here's one of many possible failure combinations:

In case you thought I was exaggerating, notice how at the bottom left it says "64 of 103".
Systems training in general will be vastly different from airline to airline in how things are covered, yet quite similar in what things are covered. I know of one airline that gives you the manuals and computerized study materials and after you are done with basic indoc, you get over a month off to study it and do the assignments on your own time at your own pace. Other airlines spend much more time on systems and get into much more detail. Ours doesn't get bogged down in details but wants you to have a good grasp of the big picture view so you can understand how the systems relate to one another. There's no One Right Way to approach systems, so if your airline does it differently, don't be surprised.

Obviously the planes are different, but they all have the same pieces: spoilers, ailerons, rudder, landing gear, hydraulics, etc. A while back, I picked up a Gulfstream manual from Half-Price Books for $5. During my time off after ground school I leafed through it and it wasn't really all that different from our Dash-8 manual.

Again, here our training department really shined. One of the instructors for systems week is one of the company's more experienced FOs, and he has an incredible knowledge of the DHC-8's innards and a knack for finding ways to help remember and understand concepts.

I noted last time that memorizing flows and rote memorization in general is something I've never been good at. Systems week gets me back into my strengths. I'm great at absorbing large amounts of facts and concepts and sifting through the pile for ideas. That's not to say there isn't more rote memorization, but fortunately those who have come before me have created acronyms to help remember limitations and which systems are connected to which engines, etc.

There's more going on than just slide after slide of diagrams. We got out of the classroom a couple of times. The first time was for the fire department visit where we practiced our fire extinguisher skills against a training device that's basically a propane grill with sensors, while wearing a PBE (Portable Breathing Equipment—a smoke hood with its own oxygen generator):

Pull, aim, squeeze, and sweep. If you don't sweep, it doesn't go out.
The second time we were let out into the wild was a trip to the maintenance hangar to walk through a pre-flight and pop open the emergency doors. While this isn't anyone's first time on an airliner, it is my first time stepping aboard a Dash-8. I've been on turboprops before, but those were either Saab 340s or ATR 42/72s. Although one airliner is very like another, somehow it's a much different experience stepping aboard something you're there to learn to operate instead of stepping aboard something someone else is going to operate while you snooze back in 20A. The simple act of going up the stairs and turning left for your seat instead of right makes a world of difference.

Other than the fact that this has 46 more seats, weighs 37,000 more pounds, is turbine powered, and is boarded standing up, it's no different than the Beech Baron I'm used to. Assuming the Baron suddenly became 2 1/2 stories tall, that is.
Week 2 had some even longer days than Week 1, but it seemed to go faster, probably because it was more fun. To break up the deluge of information, we also watched the excellent Denzel Washington/Gene Hackman movie Crimson Tide as part of CRM (Crew Resource Management) training. It may seem silly, but its message is a break from the old way of doing things back in the pre-CRM days. It's about an XO (which is similar to what our role as an FO will be in some ways) standing up for what he knows is right. In the past couple of decades, airlines have shifted away (in theory at least) from the old-style, military-inspired, sit-down-and-shut-up cockpit environment and toward one that encourages input and ideas, even if the captain makes the final call. It's a different way of operating than the Bad Old Days:

You can actually buy this (and several others) from Sporty's pilot shop by going to their Placards/Decals section under Aircraft Supplies.
The quizzes and flow checks continue, but there is no big exam to end the week. That's next week, after we start playing with learning to befuddle program the FMS (Flight Management System) and review. I celebrate making it to a second weekend by taking a couple of my classmates up for an hour in my 172 to show them Cleveland from the air, then spend the rest of the weekend getting ready for the final week!

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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Logbooks, e-logbooks, and Safelog

Pilots track their lives by the number of hours in the air, as if any other kind of time isn't worth noting.
Michael Parfit, "The Corn was Two Feet Below the Wheels", Smithsonian Magazine (May 2000)

A logbook is the most important thing in a pilot's life. Not only does it contain the required information in "a manner acceptable to the Administrator" to prove that you're eligible for your pilot's certificate, it also contains a treasure trove of memories.

...First solo...
...That first time taking up a passenger after the big checkride...
...That trip around Tampa Bay and up the beaches on the Gulf on the honeymoon...
...The ferry flight to Florida the day after Thanksgiving where the 182 picked up more unforecast ice than I have yet seen on the Dash-8 in months of Northeast winter flying...
...That sunset on a day so clear and perfectly calm where the sun happened to align perfectly, silhouetting the buildings of downtown Toledo a hundred miles to the west...
...That foggy approach into Galveston where ATC's vectors misled you and the pilot you were with into confusing the FAF for the IAF so you saw the lights of the airport slide underneath you through a break in the fog several miles ahead of where you expected them to be, leading to your first real missed approach in actual IMC....

There is an old, anonymous aviation adage that goes, "You start with a bag full of luck and an empty bag of experience. The trick is to fill the bag of experience before you empty the bag of luck." Your logbook is that transaction ledger. The triumphs, the stressful moments, the sublime, the scary: every time you take a withdrawal out of the bag of luck and convert it into a deposit into the bag of experience is summed up in a short line in a logbook.

If you're here because you've decided that now is the time to start preserving those precious hours electronically and are just looking for advice on which one to choose, you can skip the next few paragraphs and scroll down to just below the second picture.

When you first start learning to fly, your logbook is as simple as it will ever be. You have one kind of airplane, you're puttering around the practice area, and you're recording the hours of training required to meet the requirements necessary to take your checkride. If you are learning to fly just for the pleasure or the challenge of it, a paper logbook might suit your needs for the rest of your life. (Even so, backing it up with a spreadsheet version in Excel, Google Drive, or something quick and easy like that is a very good idea.)

However, if you're planning on flying for a living, an electronic logbook is too handy to not have one. It will prove worth the price once you take the first step into the professional aviation world: the time-consuming, detailed AirlineApps application. This website is used by many of the companies you'd be likely to apply at for your first airline job, so chances are you'll find yourself filling this out at some point or another.

The general application itself isn't particularly daunting; it's basically the same material you'd fill out for any job anywhere. That is, until you get to the experience grid, and that's where an e-logbook will save you (and I'm not exaggerating) a day or two of your life. Even if your chosen company doesn't use AirlineApps, whatever company you do apply at will have a similar experience grid to fill out.

I know the pain of losing two days to this "tiny" little hurdle, as I didn't keep an electronic form of my logbook until after I filled the application out, and my application took two days to complete: an hour for the general items, and the rest going through my logbooks trying to sort out what times I had in what aircraft. After a little bit of trying to add up 172 time vs. Diamond time (what should I do about DA20 time vs. DA40 time since they're both fixed, non-complex, non-high-performance?) vs. Cirrus time (the SR20 isn't high-performance but the SR22 is... @#$%!), and several different ways of sorting aircraft into lumps, I decided that single-engine Diamond time is not different in any substantial way from 172, Saratoga, SR22, and the other 27 (yes, I had 30 different single-engine aircraft types in my logbook—although I only know that because I used my e-logbook to tell me as I wrote this) kinds of single-engine time I had. So I decided to sort them into two buckets: fixed-gear single and retractable-gear single. Each multi-engine aircraft, however, got its own entry, which meant I now had a few more totals to break out and add up separately.

The items along the left are standard application fare until you get to the dreaded experience grid. It's easily tamed if you have an electronic logbook to add it all up for you, however. That alone makes one worth the money.

Problem solved after only a few hours, right? Not quite. AirlineApps asks you to separate your "normal" PIC time from your instructor PIC time. On seeing that new monkey in the wrench, I threw up my hands and went to bed. I spent almost the entire next day working on that little wrinkle.

However, with my e-logbook, just for fun I went and totalled all that up right now. Instead of the entire day, it took me less than 60 seconds. Not only that, I got a more precise answer than I got when I was filling out the original application. (As it turns out, I actually had over 30 more hours than I put on the application, which means I probably accidentally skipped a page while going through the 120+ pages of logbook entries to add up.)

While I was on AirlineApps to grab that screenshot, I decided to add my Dash-8 time for no other reason than because it is there. Since the 200 weighs 36,300 pounds and the 300 is 43,000 pounds, they need to be broken out separately because they straddle the 12,500-41,000 pound line. No problem this time—the electronic logbook keeps track of such details automatically! No reason to break out the calculator to find out that as of this very second I have 152.68 hours in the 200 and 82.40 in the 300. I don't even need to add up the two to figure out how much total Dash time I have: all I do is click the box next to them and it tells me I have 235.08 hours.

This will get even more useful in the next couple of years once I upgrade, because then not only will I have times to sort out between the 200 and 300, I'll have to break out how much of each of those times are PIC time vs. SIC time. Right now, as a First Officer I'm logging SIC time, but once I move into the left seat it changes to the all-important turbine PIC time. But when that time comes, it will be a matter of a couple of minutes to figure out instead of hours.

If I've sold you on the idea that if you're looking at an aviation career getting an electronic logbook is a necessity and not a luxury, here are the factors I considered when picking out the one I went with.

Safety: Does it come with an online backup service or am I hosed if the iPad or phone breaks or my computer crashes?

Convenience: I have an iPad, an Android phone, and a Linux PC. Which of these can I use it on?

Company's reputation: I plan to be flying for several more decades. Will the company still be around then?

Price: Again, I plan to be flying for several more decades. Do I have to pay for this thing every month/year for the rest of my life?

Features: This is actually the last on the list because all of the logbooks I looked at do basically the same slicing and dicing. The only "must-have" feature is the ability to export my logbook to a file just in case the vendor went out of business.

I played with and evaluated three of the electronic logbooks that are most popular today: LogTen Pro, Logbook Pro, and Safelog. As you can see from the screenshot above, I went with Safelog. I don't have any connection with Dauntless Software (in fact, a long time ago I sent in an application to be a partner for them in order to make a small commission on all of the Private Pilot study software I was selling for them and I never received any reply from them at all, so I should actually be a little less likely to recommend them), and your needs/desires may differ from mine, but here are my reasons for selecting them for a big decision like this:

Safety: Safelog is basically a cloud-based server system whose app is just a front-end to interface to that cloud. In other words, not only is it included in the price, there's not really a way to not have it backed up.

Convenience: This is huge. I have an Android phone and LogTen Pro doesn't run on anything except Apple. Logbook Pro is tied to the desktop, although it has apps to interface with it. With Safelog I log the day's flights while I'm in the van on the way to the hotel and they're backed up immediately. Safelog also has a web interface, which was immensely convenient while converting the old paper logbook to e-format.

Company's reputation: I've used their GroundSchool written prep software for all my writtens from the Commercial level on (and I would have used them for the Private and Instrument too had I known about them back then) and found it easy to use, always up to date, and quite reasonably priced. They've been around for even longer than I've been flying, and will probably still be around once I'm forcibly retired in 25 years.

Price: LogTen Pro has no lifetime subscription option unless you're using a Mac, so if they want to jack up the price from $49.99/year to $99.99/year, you either pay it or go through the pain of converting to a different company. Logbook Pro was rejected outright at this stage (in other words, I didn't even bother to install it after looking at their price sheet) because their add-on pricing for things that should be included is insanely overpriced and practically incomprehensible (I mean, what is this APDL thing? Do I need it? Is it something I want? How would I know if you don't even explain it on your order form?! For all I know it just makes my iPad say "PC Load Letter". And you want HOW MUCH extra for cloud backup, schedule importing, a mobile version, that mysterious APDL doohickey, and other features that everyone else just includes? Is there a checked-bag fee thrown in there, too?) I've read aircraft performance charts that were easier to understand than their order form. Next. Safelog has a subscription model but also has a lifetime option of a flat $299 and you never get a bill from them again. After 6 years of LogTen Pro, I've broken even at that price, which means 19 more years of professional flight logging for free.

Features: Safelog exports everything you've put in it in a format that is easily converted to a spreadsheet. It does pretty much everything the other apps do, too, and even creates a map in Google Earth or Google Maps of where you've flown if you ask it to:

No matter which electronic logbook you decide fits your needs best, the sooner you start using one the better. I had approximately 1200 entries to convert, and it took a month to do. Fortunately there's not much else to do in hotel rooms during the winter, but it still wasn't a fun month or one I'd like to repeat any time soon. Or ever. Logbook Pro will do that work for you at the bargain price of only $200 for 500 entries, meaning that it would have cost me only $500 to have someone else do the boring work. (Which may seem like a lot, but considering that it takes approximately a minute per entry, that works out to $24/hour, which isn't actually all that high a price.) Incidentally, while converting to e-format I was able to polish up and correct some minor errors along the way (things like accidentally putting night hours in the cross-country column next to it, forgetting to include cross-country hours for a flight or having a night landing but nothing in the night hours column, etc.) which a paid transcriber wouldn't notice or be able to correct. You can save yourself a lot of time and money by getting started with one before you accumulate all those hours in the first place!

The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

It takes hours of work to bring each Keyboard & Rudder post to you. If you've found it useful, please consider making an easy one-time or recurring donation via PayPal in any amount you choose.